Five Ways Market Research Paints Bright Future for Public Transit

At the Tuesday morning plenary of the Rail~Volution conference, William Millar made a bold pronouncement. The president of the American Public Transportation Association suggested that, beyond the 1,200 attendees of the annual gathering, there are billions of public transit advocates — they just don’t know it yet.

The popularity of car sharing is a good sign for transit. Photo Sierra Club

Millar may have meant the comment as inspiration, but consumer and demographic data seem to back his claim.

Over the course of four decades, the Southeastern Institute of Research in Richmond, Virginia, has conducted more than 14,000 market research studies for clients like AT&T and the AARP. During a panel discussion on “The Shifting Paradigm of the City,” the company’s CEO, John Martin, outlined a convergence of measurable trends that paint a very promising future for public transportation.

According to Martin, Millar is right: There is a large and growing audience for more and better public transit. Here are the top five reasons we could soon see a swell of transit advocates.

Growing population: With the U.S. headed to 341 million residents by 2020 and 400 million by 2040, the population is growing. If the current trend continues, an overwhelming number of them are bound for the cities. “What ultimately will happen is we’ll have these urban villages everywhere,” Martin said. But more people means more cars, and tight budgets mean no new roads. “News flash: Congestion, access and mobility are really going to be challenged,” he added. In that context, public transit will be an obvious answer for new and long-time city dwellers.

Demographic sea change: We’re facing a profound generational shift and, according to Martin: “The dynamic is aligning with transit big time.”

First, there’s the boomers. There are 76 million Americans in that cohort and nine out of 10 say they want to age in place. “The question isn’t going to be, ‘Are boomers ready for transit?’” Martin said. “The real question is ‘Is transit ready for boomers.’” Lucky for advocates, boomers aren’t a passive bunch. “If you look at boomers, when we were growing up it was a time of plenty,” Martin explained. ”Our values are being in control and changing things we thought should be changed… We transformed society as we passed through it and we’re going to transform transit. We’re going to demand the things we want it to do.”

Gen Y is inclined to transit, too. “Gen Y is much less car centric than other generations,” Martin pointed out. Compared to their elders, folks born between 1982 and 1994 are less eager to get a drivers license, less inclined to purchase a car and less likely to view automobile ownership as a right of passage to adulthood. Some would argue the trend is based on economic need, the result of student loan debt and a tough job market. “I think it’s deeper than that,” Martin said. “Gen Y is hyper connected. They are literally digital natives… Eighty-eight percent want to live in urban settings because they can be hyper-connected.” Gen Y isn’t looking for a dream home; they’re looking for a dream lifestyle and that includes walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

Continued climb in poverty rates: The unfortunate reality is that 43 million Americans lived in poverty in 2009 and that number grew to 46 million in 2010, accounting for approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population. For low-income individuals, owning and operating a car is a disproportionate financial burden that can consume up to 40 percent of a family budget. Public transit provides a more affordable option. “And a major part of workforce competitiveness is that it’s hard to get people to jobs,” Martin said. “There are more jobs available than we have transportation to get people to those jobs. That’s going to be a huge issue moving forward.”

Green going mainstream: According to SRI research, eight out of 10 people want to live green. (Their behavior, of course, may not meet that aspiration). Many report taking more eco-conscious actions now than they did three years ago. “Where this is headed is, 20 years from now, we’ll be in a post-carbon city stage,” Martin said. “We’re going to be designing cities around green transportation, and carbon units — auto units — will be phased out. We’re going to compete in economic development language against other cities in how green we are.” That’s evident in places like Arlington, Virginia, he said, where SRI’s surveys show access to sustainable transportation options already plays a role in attracting and retaining residents.

A new consumer craze: Combine the shifting demographics and growing environmental ethic and the result is the “new frugality.” Call it responsible consumerism or just a determination to get the best bang for their buck, but Americans want more out of what they buy. In fact, in many cases, they don’t want to buy anything at all. “The manifestation of this is collaborative consumption,” Martin said. “We’re now more interested in getting access to materials or services, instead of owning them.” Look at the meteoric rise of car sharing. Look at the growing number of websites where people are sharing their homes and personal automobiles. Transit serves the same model, freeing consumers from stuff without cramping their lifestyle.